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Being a female runner shouldn't be dangerous. Laken Riley's death reminds us it is.

A few weeks ago, as I approached the last mile of an early evening run, a naked man leaped from the thick brush lining a popular exercise trail in Northwest Washington, D.C. The man started masturbating aggressively as the distance between us quickly dwindled.

Terrified, I sprinted until I reached the nearest runner several hundred feet ahead on a steep incline.

Gasping for air and adrenaline surging, I told the runner what had just happened, struggling to process it myself. “Is it OK if I tail you for a bit?” I asked, slightly embarrassed. “No problem,” he replied.

We parted ways at the trailhead about a quarter of a mile later when I felt calm enough to finish the run alone in my neighborhood.

This is the reality of being a female runner. Safety is an illusion. And a fragile one at that.

Thankfully, the naked man did not touch me, and I was able to complete my run. Sadly, other female runners have not been as fortunate.

Laken Riley's death reignites fears for women runners – and victim-blaming

Recently, 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley was killed while on a run at the University of Georgia’s campus.

Laken’s death has reignited the conversation that began in the wake of Eliza Fletcher’s kidnapping and murder nearly two years ago about the dangers female runners face. Fletcher was a teacher who was abducted while on a morning run near the University of Memphis.

Following the news of her death, online trolls unleashed a fury of victim-blaming tweets, comments and messages faulting almost anything but the perpetrator.

“She should have covered up,” people said as if running in a sports bra in the oppressive Southern summer heat was unbelievable. “She should not have been running at that hour,” others scolded, maybe unaware that it was the most convenient time for her busy schedule as an educator and mother. “She should not have run by herself,” many others scoffed, as if adult women require chaperones.

Runners head down the sidewalk past Fountain Square on Georgia Avenue during "Finish Eliza's Run" on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The approximately four mile run was to memorialize, Eliza Fletcher, the Memphis runner, and mother of two, who was murdered during her early morning run. (Robin Rudd /Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)
Runners head down the sidewalk past Fountain Square on Georgia Avenue during "Finish Eliza's Run" on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The approximately four mile run was to memorialize, Eliza Fletcher, the Memphis runner, and mother of two, who was murdered during her early morning run. (Robin Rudd /Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

While it is impossible to justify each criticism that every keyboard warrior will lob at a woman guilty of nothing but moving her body, the propensity to blame those who are harmed or killed while simply doing what they love is indicative of a larger issue.

Victim-blaming is a symptom of the minimization or the flat-out denial of the very real harassment and violence that female runners like me experience almost every time we dare to practice our sport in public.

I'm a woman who runs alone. I'm furious about Eliza Fletcher's killing.

'How do I feel safe on a solo run? I don't.'

When I detailed events like the incident I described above in a September 2022 op-ed for The Washington Post, I received hundreds of comments that blamed me for the harassing and threatening behavior I have experienced throughout my years of running.

Rather than focusing on the actual problem of violence against female runners, people were eager to point out why the vile behavior of others was somehow my fault, not a societal issue.

To sleepover or not sleepover? My 8-year-old daughter got her first sleepover invite. There's no way she's going.

Never run with music. Always carry a weapon. Run with your dog. Run with your husband. Never run at night. Only run after the sun is up. Do not wear provocative clothing. Refrain from drawing attention to yourself. The list of precautions that female runners must take to avoid being harassed or harmed while on a run is exhaustive and, frankly, maddening.

While most female runners and I follow some of these general guidelines, the truth is that despite our best efforts to protect ourselves, those who wish to harm us may still find us. For Laken and Fletcher, they did.

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The most eye-opening comment I received was from a suburban father who claimed his wife, daughter and female friends had never complained to him about ever feeling unsafe on the run. Therefore, he concluded, the issue did not exist.

Another commentator proposed that perhaps the female athletes in this man’s life had never shared their experiences with him because they felt he could not provide a supportive or validating environment to discuss such an issue.

Melissa A. Sullivan
Melissa A. Sullivan

I read the man’s follow-up comment, hoping for a breakthrough. Unfortunately, like many online discussion forums, the exchange devolved into a personal attack.

In the days since Laken’s death, thousands of female runners have posted their experiences across social media and created community. “How do I feel safe on a solo run?” one running influencer asked in a reel, “I don’t.”

In these and similar posts, the female running community is not discussing something we do not already know. We hope that people like the suburban father, who doubt the seriousness of our safety concerns, are listening. Let women run in peace, not rest in peace.

Melissa A. Sullivan is an avid runner, military spouse and former spokesperson for a federal agency. She and her active-duty spouse live in Washington, D.C., with their rescue dog, Ellie. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is it safe to run? Laken Riley murder exposes reality of women runners